It would be quite the understatement of the year to say that I am interested in jewellery.
It’s more of a lifelong passion! I have been wearing it, layering it, buying it, obsessing over it and even trying to make it for as long as I remember. I still recall the exasperated look on my mum’s face when yet again I had spent all my pocket money on what she would call ‘trinkets’ when to me it would be a veritable treasure.
So, imagine my surprise swiftly followed by a huge sense of joy when the first Museum of Jewellery in Italy opened its doors in Vicenza – the city to which we had moved five months earlier. It was too much of a coincidence! I could hardly contain my excitement. I had to go and explore it, room after room and jewel after jewel.
The museum is nestled in Palladio’s Basilica. A rather perfect choice of location, as on one hand the Basilica is the jewel in Vicenza’s crown – an imposing, yet elegant building surging up towards the sky from the city’s main square – Piazza dei Signori. On the other hand, the Basilica (a civic rather than a religious building) has been housing Vicenza’s jewellery shops for centuries and window displays with beautiful jewels still glint in the dusky light under its mighty vaults.
In fact, it turns out that the premises of the museum itself used to be a goldsmiths’ studio as far back as the 13th century. As soon as you walk in, you can see the foundations of the medieval shop under a glass cover inserted in the floor of the museum shop. A perfect case of the past meeting the present!
The sensation of authentic experience intensifies as you go up the stairs to the exhibition. The vaulted walls still bear faint traces of what in their day must have been splendid frescoes. It turns out that this used to be the private chapel of the goldsmiths working here.
At the top of the stairs is a modern day sanctuary of the thing that we, as humans, can do perfectly well without, but instead we have elevated it to an art form.
What is this fascination that jewellery holds over us? Unlike clothes or shoes we don’t really need it. It doesn’t protect us from the cold, it doesn’t hide a multitude of imperfections and forgetting your jewellery at home one day will not cause shock, neither will attract ridicule. Yet, we covet it and have turned it into:
- a status symbol: Married?! You wear a ring. Royal? You wear a crown.
- an expression of wealth: From diamonds and pearls to thick gold chains, different jewellery strokes for different rich folks.
- a fashion thing: Jewellery trends come and go – from body chains to wearing just one oversize earring, we have seen it all.
- a personal statement: Stacked rings, layered necklaces, heirloom brooch. By choosing what jewellery to wear each morning, we send subtle (and sometimes loud) signals to the world as to who we are and what we like.
The Museum of Jewellery in Vicenza explores the diverse embodiments of our love for adornments. Eleven curators have created nine rooms dedicated to the themes of Symbol, Magic, Function, Beauty, Fashion, Art, Design, Future and Icons. Each room reveals a different face of the concept of jewellery and its applications.
Traditionally people love showing their originality through the jewellery they wear, so I decided to be a little bit original here and started my visit to the museum in the reverse order. As such, instead of delving into the ‘Symbol’ room first, at the top of the stairs I turned right and walked into the space dedicated to ‘Icons’.
The reason for this was that the Icons space is adjacent to the space exploring the Future of jewellery. I wanted to see pieces made over 24 centuries apart under the same roof and try to ascertain if their aesthetics were contrasting or complementing one another.
My eyes were immediately drawn to this brooch made of yellow gold, enamel, ruby and a grey pearl. It dates back to the second half of the 19th century.
The gold and vitreous paste necklace and the gold bulla below, both Etruscan, are respectively from the 4th and the 1st century BC.
I would definitely wear the one above today, but I have to admit that the one below doesn’t quite rock my boat.
I found this piece interesting for other reasons though. Look closely and you may recognise jewellery making techniques which are still in use today. Hammering a sheet of metal, doming it to create a hollow object and even a subtle filligree.
I find it mind boggling that people could develop such sophisticated techniques and create such objects of beauty 21-24 centuries ago with only handheld tools, like a hammer, and nothing of the powerful polishing machines and other modern wonders that can be found in jewellery studios nowadays.
Then I looked across to the Future space.
The huge glass case contains some very avant garde pieces. They wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi film. Or, if you could close your eyes and open them again 100 years from now, I bet you would be seeing this type of jewellery adorning the human body then.
I was surprised to recognise some of the techniques I had admired in the Icons space: hollow forms again, metal surfaces polished to a high shine and even a very sophisticated filligree. Some of the materials were new – plastics and polymers. But then I thought back to the vitreous paste beads in the necklace above. I bet that 24 centuries ago glass was a rather new and unusual material for the Etruscans, too.
It was quite exciting to consider all this. The parallels between the old and the new were more than I originally had thought.
The next room – Design – held some surprises for me, too.
First, I loved the Gold Digger brooch by Ramon Middelkoop. The design made me laugh. It’s really cool, don’t you think?
My favourite piece in the Design room though was this bracelet.
I spent a long time admiring it and trying to capture its delicate structural design in a photo. Then I turned and with some surpirse I noticed that the lattice of the windows facing the jewellery case, looks quiet similar to the lattice of the bracelet. I took a picture of the windows from the outside. Have a look.
I am pretty certain that the jewellery designer didn’t have in mind these particular windows when he created the bracelet. Still, I love it when jewellery takes on an everyday motif and then re-thinks it in such a way that makes it noticeable and covetable.
I slowly made my way through the rooms dedicated to jewellery as Fashion and as Art. There were several pieces by designers such as Moschino and Chanel that caught my eye and made me stop for a while.
I was much more interested and excited about the next room though. Called ‘Beauty’ it showcases some stunning necklaces. Most women would feel like a million dollars wearing either of these. I would imagine that price-tag-wise a million dollars for any one of them would be not too far off the mark.
This gold and amethyst dream really appealed to me.
Although I wouldn’t say no to this one either.
What I admired the most in this room though was the craftmanship employed in the creation of these pieces. Consider just some of the steps that this involves:
- selecting the right gemstones in terms of flash and size;
- painstakingly making the setting for each individual stone;
- soldering a large number of small components;
- creating with mathematical precision components of just the right size for the desigh;
- carefully polishing the final piece so as to bring the metal to a high shine.
The number of man-hours that such pieces would require must be staggering!
Three more rooms followed after that: Function, Magic and Symbol (pictured below).
Each revealed yet another facet of the role that jewellery plays in our lives. I was particularly taken with a stunning Chinese necklace (so big and detailed that it was impossible to photograph well, sorry, guys!!), a fabulously intricate ram head brooch-cum-pendant from the second half of the 19th century and a set with intricately carved cameos.
With this my visit drew to an end.
I didn’t really want to leave, but at the same time I was so replete with observations and emotions that I needed some time back to the hubbub of daily life to process them and rationalise them.
So after some thought, I decided to finish my written piece not with a definite conclusion, but with three dots. It means that this is a story with an open end, a story to which I would like to add a new observation or thought every time I visit the Museum of Jewellery in Vicenza time and time again.
Museo del Gioiello
Piazza dei Signori, 44